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A Different Perspective on the English Reformation,
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This review is from: The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (Paperback)"The Stripping of the Altars", Eamon Duffy's erudite, meticulous yet flowing analysis of what he refers to as "traditional religion" in England in the years from 1400 to 1580 is a masterpiece of scholarship and also of presentation. Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge University, he states in his preface to the second edition (the book was originally published in 1992) that his intentions were academic and that he was himself surprised to find that it developed an audience among the general public. He should not have been so shocked. Leavened with anecdotes, storytelling, humor and engaging descriptions of the thoughts, customs and nature of life in those times, his work, while painstaking -- painfully so at times -- reads comfortably and absorbingly throughout most of its highly approachable 593 pages (plus bibliography and index).
Duffy's thesis is that, contrary to what has been taught and generally believed about the Protestant Reformation in England, satisfaction with the Roman Catholic "traditional" religion, its fêtes, rituals and observances was almost universal at the time of the Reformation and that the Reformation, itself, was imposed upon the people by royal and civil authority, not popular will. Early on and fairly enough, Duffy describes his irish Catholic background, yet while that outlook must be constantly borne in mind while reading his book, the fact is that he makes a convincing case.
He does so systematically, painting the nature of English existence at the time, largely rural, generally peaceful in the wake of the Hundred Year's War, isolated, provincial and soaked in pervasive religiosity. Suggesting that the abuses, indulgences and corruption of the Continental church had few echoes in England, Duffy works through the nature of categories of traditional practice -- liturgy, catechesis, mass, gild, prayers, primers (in preference to Bible study), and the sometimes cultish fixations on death and purgatory -- and in doing so creates an image of an idyllic world, cohesive, communal and warmly and constantly involved with its faith. In the process he uses plentiful plates and illustrations that correlate with specifics in the text and which, themselves, are a pleasure to review.
Voices around Henry VIII, who despite his quarrels with the papacy remained ambivalent about his religious identification, radicalized his policies in the persons of ranting Hugh Latimer and Machiavellian Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer, culminating in 1533 in the ultimate break with the Roman church and, in the name of removing idolatrous objects, the subsequent eponymous stripping of the altars, art, and statuary of the churches and the destruction of abbeys and monasteries, a sad price to pay for the concepts of religious individualism and personal responsibility for salvation.
The reaction of the traditionalists was varied. Some resisted while others went underground or accommodated and accepted the new authority; however, given the opportunity, Duffy emphasizes, the "vast majority" of the people quickly reverted to traditional religion after the deaths of Henry in 1547 and of the young King Edward VI in 1553 and the brief accession to the throne of Catholic Mary Tudor. As the reign of Elizabeth I began in 1558 and the Protestant Church of England was reinstated, many quickly changed sides of the aisle again, but, Duffy asserts, the ultimate defeat of the traditionalists was the result only of lengthy systematic repression, an effort that finally subverted the true will of the people. (There is some irony in the fact that in two brief paragraphs Duffy passes over, almost with a "boys will be boys" flippancy, the burnings of "heretics" under the Marian regime.)
So be it. Duffy's is an interesting concept. Yet questions remain: Why if the dedication to traditional religion was so deep, did it virtually disappear in well less than a century as a significant factor in English life? Were the Protestant propagandists that convincing or their "draconian" measures that intimidating? To what extent was the acceptance of traditional religion itself, as opposed to deep faith, an accommodation to existing authority, its methods and its mores, and a reflection of humanity's characteristic inclination to adapt to surroundings and make the joyful best of them?
Those last are comments, not criticisms, issues that should not detract from appreciation of this work. "The Stripping of the Altars" is a magnificent book.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 30, 2006 9:58:47 AM PST
Careful Reader says:
The reason why traditional religion died out (for the most part) in England is carefully explained by Duffy and is one of his theses. Traditional Catholicism was based on shared practice of worship, the sacraments, and piety. Elizabeth outlawed all three and forced on England a new religion. Within three generations, the link of practice with the old religion was broken. What was unclear about that?
Posted on May 3, 2008 10:15:26 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 6, 2011 12:44:50 PM PDT
Margaret M. Duffy says:
I would think that the ferocious persecution of Catholics in England, from Henry VIII's beheadings of Thomas More, John Fisher and others to the crushing recusant fines and hangings, drawings and quaterings of Elizabeth's reign, to the penal laws of James I would be sufficient explanation for the public disappearance of Catholic belief and practice. The wonder is that Catholicism survived at all in England after 1570! And, by the way, I would really be interested in seeing a history of how the Catholic church did manage to survive in England from the end of Elizabeth's reign till Catholic Emancipation in the early nineteenth century. That's about as long as Japanese Catholicism survived underground from the persecutions and the closing of Japan till its opening in the mid-nineteenth century. Those hidden histories may have much to tell us. (Incidentally, I'm not a relation of Professor Duffy, so far as I know. However, in my own field of art history, the effects of the Reformation is my main area of study.)
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 27, 2010 10:43:15 AM PDT
This 3 year old post is very thought provoking. Wow. I hope one of those histories gets written soon!
In reply to an earlier post on Nov 28, 2011 12:27:21 AM PST
Amazing, isn't it, how much history has been forgotten? I was surprised to see the other reviewer put the word "draconian" in quotes. Drawing and quartering is the most thoroughly horrifying method of torture and execution I can think of. If that were all the king had done, it would be draconian enough. But it wasn't all he did. The English people did not clamor for Protestantism and King Henry himself had been a staunch defender of the Church and the Pope...until he did not get the divorce he wanted and decided to name himself the head of the church. And so the Church in England became the Church of England. Families who had been Catholic for generations suddenly woke to find themselves Protestant. And were none too happy about it! Or about being threatened with torture and death for holding the same faith one day that they held all their days before.
Posted on Dec 12, 2012 11:09:01 PM PST
Benjamin Baxter says:
"Only" a century? Tell you what --- if you remind me of your review in only a century, I will shake your hand.
Centuries are long. Those who remembered a Catholic baptism under Henry VIII would, if they survived persecution, would still not live to see their children die, and most of their children will die before a century passes.
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